Kansas is a state of extremes. The geographic center of the United States is known for its wildly varying weather, which includes heat waves and tornadoes; and is the setting for such vastly different stories as children's favorite The Wizard of Oz and true crime thriller In Cold Blood. Its population growth, too, varies greatly: some areas of the state are experiencing a boom, while others are seeing rapid decline. For booksellers, this uneven growth means they must do two things: get to where the people are, and remind them that books should be right up there on the list of items to purchase, along with fancy cars and new homes.
In the Kansas City Metropolitan Area (which includes parts of Missouri), the cities of Johnson County have some of the fastest growing populations and highest median incomes in the state and the entire country. Yet overall, Kansas is feeling the brunt of falling populations: 89% of its cities have fewer than 3,000 people; and hundreds have fewer than 1,000 people. Eastern Kansas is much more densely populated than western Kansas and, unsurprisingly, that's where most of the state's bookstores are.
These include famed independents Rainy Day Books in Kansas City and Watermark Books in Wichita, as well as 13 other indies, 11 Borders stores (some of which are Waldenbooks) and five Barnes & Noble stores. Rainy Day's founder and president, Vivien Jennings, said her store—mere blocks from the Missouri state line—serves both states, and agreed the area's population is growing tremendously. But, she pointed out, "a lot of that income is spent on face items: on cars, houses. It's a very conspicuous consumption. One of the things we're fighting is to get people to remember the value of the arts and reading in particular." To do that, Rainy Day sponsors more than 300 author events a year, often offsite. When we talked, Jennings had just come from an event with Suze Orman at a Marriott in Kansas City, attended by about 700 people, and Jennings said she sold more books than there were people at the event.
Kansans are indeed readers. Governor Kathleen Sebelius is an ardent literacy supporter, and Kansas was one of the first states to become affiliated with the National Center for the Book, which promotes books and reading. But Kansas booksellers recommend books to customers carefully. Dan Hochman is a trade book buyer at Claflin Books in Manhattan, which serves customers from nearby military post Fort Riley as well as from local Kansas State University. "There's the college mindset—which is more liberal—and the Kansas mindset—which is more conservative—so we've got to balance that. We try to represent both," Hochman said. Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books in Wichita said Kansans have "a pretty independent spirit. On the one hand it is easy to predict what they're going to like, but on the other hand you can be completely blown away by what someone's going to pick."
With most Kansas booksellers setting up shop in the eastern half of the state, Kansans living to the west have limited options when it comes to buying books. Tiny bookstores do exist, but as Bob Spear, co-owner of the Book Barn in Leavenworth, said, "You get further to the west, things get really spread out." For some people in that region, Amazon is the only choice. When the online retailer opened a distribution center in Coffeyville in 1999, though, Jennings of Rainy Day Books was determined not to see all that revenue leave the state. So she convinced the state government to collect sales tax on Amazon orders placed in Kansas. "It was one small step for booksellers," she said.
A lopsided population and wide-ranging literary tastes notwithstanding, bookselling in Kansas is alive and well. Said Watermark's Bagby, "In spite of ourselves we're going to do this, just like anybody who came here and looked at this dustbowl."